I don’t normally get political on here, but today’s an exception. Today I’m going to encourage you to vote.
Wherever in the world you live, if you can vote then there will be people who literally died to give you that power. They might have been revolutionaries fighting dictatorships. They might have been activists protesting inequality. They might have been journalists risking everything to speak truth to power.
I’m lucky. I live in something approximating a functioning democracy. Sure, the British system could do with some improvement – proportional representation would be a good start. But ignoring politics won’t fix it, whereas voting pulls the politicians and the debates just a little towards what you want.
From the Peterloo protestors to the suffragettes, Britain has a proud tradition of uppity sods forcing the powerful to listen. As someone who gains both pleasure and cold cash from history, I’d be doing them a disservice to ignore that. And as someone who lives in this country, I’d be doing myself a disservice by not taking one small walk down to the polling booth, making my mark, and making my voice heard.
The election is less than a fortnight away. Please, if you’re British and have the vote, go read up on the parties and your local candidates, consider the issues, and get out to vote on the 12th. And wherever you live, remember, your vote might be one in millions, but so are all the rest, so when the time comes, make it count.
Every time political news breaks, it’s accompanied by a raft of historical analogies. Whether it’s comparing immigrant internment camps with those used against the Boers and Jews or comparing the British Prime Minister’s policies with those that triggered the Civil War, these are powerful images.
I’m always pleased to see people learning from history, and perhaps becoming better informed through these comparisons. But I’m also very wary of these analogies. They’re powerful, in both good and bad ways.
How Analogies Help the Individual
Historical analogies can be really useful to us as citizens.
Firstly, they help us understand what’s happening. Familiar stories and recurring patterns give us a way to wrap our brains around events. Past examples create expectations for the future, reducing uncertainty.
Then there’s the emotional weight they carry. Not just the alleviation of uncertainty, but the summoning of other feelings. Analogies give us an instinctive feel for whether an event is good or bad. They tap into existing feelings, and so do the emotional heavy lifting for us.
Together, these factors mobilise us to action. That might be protest, it might be voting, it might be sitting back in pleased acceptance. Whatever the outcome, the analogy helps get you there.
Because they’re heavy in information, they can convey a complex message in a simple way. That’s an important tool when trying to either persuade or inform citizens.
For politicians relying on shaky logic, analogies can be particularly useful. Once people accept that situation A is like situation B in one way, they are more likely to assume that it’s similar in other ways. That saves the politician from explaining how A will actually reach a particular outcome – it will get there because B did. This smooths over contradictions and logic gaps.
This is a great way to justify policies. “You know what happened last time we ignored a country backing religious extremists…” is a great excuse for kicking off on Iran. But it ignores the differences between Iran and “the last time”, as well as the religious extremists we’ve left alone.
The Weakness in Historical Analogies
This leads into the bigger issues with historical analogies.
Firstly there’s the pretense of objectivity that historical comparisons bring. Which analogy you choose is subjective and based on what point you want to make. Whether you compare Boris Johnson to Charles I, Julius Ceasar, or Lord Bath is a matter of political choice. Johnson’s attempts to make us think of Churchill have been almost comedically blatant.
It’s possible to choose from many different good analogies to any situation, which can teach valuable yet contradictory lessons. It’s also possible to pick bad analogies and have people accept them.
Analogies are dangerous because of the simplifications they bring. The analogy itself usually ignores nuance and difference. The vision of the past period it summons is usually a simplified, stripped-down one, ignoring debates, uncertainties, and complications about what happened. By extension, it makes the current situation seem simpler than it is.
Any analogy comes with assumptions about cause and effect, based on common historical understanding. “X was followed by Y, so if Z is like X than Y will happen again.” But what if X didn’t cause Y? Or what if, as is usually the case, it was caused by multiple complex factors? In that case, Z could have very different results.
Every situation is different from every one that came before, if only because we know about the previous ones.
Should We Ignore Historical Analogies?
So should we ignore historical analogies?
Of course not. And I don’t just say that because I write about history for money.
Historical analogies are very useful. They can provide perspective and understanding. They can motivate us to action, if only to ensure that the outcome is different this time, that the analogy breaks down and we free ourselves from history’s heavy hand.
But we should be very careful with analogies. We should be aware of their limits. And we should watch out for when they’re used to manipulate us, by our political allies as much as our opponents. Because the insidious analogies aren’t the ones we laugh at or decry. They’re the ones we unquestioningly accept because they feel right.
Some people dismiss speculative fiction as pure escapism. Margaret Atwood famously disdains the science fiction label as she thinks it represents something without the depth of her work. But as a weekend in the heart of British SF shows, there are few genres more engaged in the big concerns of the modern world.
I spent Easter weekend 2019 at Ytterbium, the latest in Britain’s long-running series of Eastercon science fiction conventions. Eastercon is one of the big national gatherings for the speculative fiction community, covering, fantasy, horror, and science fiction, with an emphasis on the latter. It’s a great place to get a sense of where British SF is at.
As an attendee, Eastercon always seems very smoothly run to me. The volunteers who do the work give every appearance of professionalism. For a long and lovely weekend, a bland hotel becomes the hub of a normally dispersed community.
The entertainment at an Eastercon covers a wide range of topics. Panels, talks, and workshops discuss writing, editing, and commentary. But this year, I was struck by the level of political engagement.
Facing the Real World
What you get out of a convention will always be shaped by what you choose to attend. But that will also be dependent on what’s available, and this year, there was plenty for the politically concerned attendee. I heard panellists discuss subtle forms of racism, climate change, paranoid politics, and fake news. I went to events drawing attention to under-represented groups within SF. It was enlightening, uplifting, and very relevant to the world around us.
When people dismiss SF as pure escapism, they wilfully ignore its potential to engage in deep topics. This depth comes from two angles. One is the writers using spec fic’s tools to make us consider uncomfortable truths about the world, as when Marian Womack or Kim Stanley Robinson write about the future of the environment. The other angle is the analysis, with thinkers like Helen Gould looking at the assumptions in our writing and pushing us to move past them, to create work that is more enlightened, more representative, more inclusive of our world.
In both these ways, the SF community engages hard with real world issues.
And then there’s the community itself.
Human beings need community. It provides them with support and a sense of belonging. SF is great for that. A shared passion for imaginative stories pulls people together.
That might not sound very political, but a moment’s thought shows that it is. By providing a community, we give support to those who need help to get by or who struggle to be heard. While imperfect, the SF community’s approach to trans rights has generally been forward-looking in recent years. Some in UK SF are pushing to amplify voices sidelined by poverty and colonialism, as in the screening of African SF films at Ytterbium. Just by spending time in this space, I’ve become more aware of the issues at stake.
A community can bind together people of very different backgrounds and help them see each other’s perspectives. That’s a radical political act and one that shouldn’t be so rare.
It’s OK to Escape
I don’t think that escapism is a bad thing. Some of the books I read and shows I watch are chosen for it. They help me relax and recharge, give me the energy to face a tough world. They help keep us sane, and we should never be ashamed of enjoying them just because they offer the relief of escape.
But there’s also a rich strand of SF that is politically and socially engaged, that recognises the politics embedded in any text, that deliberately seeks to raise important issues and make us think about the world.
SF is many things, but as Ytterbium showed, it is not just an escape.
With all the bleak stories in the news, the future looks grim. At times like this, science fiction gets called upon to illustrate what’s happening. David Davis has talked about how Brexit won’t lead to a Mad Max future. Protests by young people have been compared with dystopian fiction, in which teenage protagonists rise up against the mess adults make. Sci-fi may have shaped the way we see the world, and it’s certainly shaping the way we talk about it.
But most sci-fi ignores an important reality – that the world is getting better. Stories are driven by struggle and conflict, so sci-fi needs to make things difficult for the characters. Often, that means making their world a tough place. It means that our metaphors for the future are about disaster.
That’s useful as a warning and great for entertainment. But it might not be so helpful for thinking about where we’re going.
On the whole, the world is becoming a better place. Literacy keeps rising. Poverty keeps falling. Health keeps improving and child mortality declining. There is less violence, relative to the number of people in the world, than at any measurable point in history. That’s not to mention ever-accelerating moves towards equality, which seem heartbreakingly slow at times, but have included dramatic leaps forward in changes like gay marriage.
It’s hard to make that into dramatic sci-fi. Even Iain M. Banks, whose sci-fi was built around the post-scarcity Culture, had to step outside that utopia to provide conflict.Sci-fi is seldom going to show us the better place we’re moving towards. And so, even as a sci-fi writer, I have to admit the limits of my genre. Because it’s seldom going to help us see the better futures we might have. Only the worse ones which, as Davis pointed out, we won’t.
Spiderman Homecoming is one of my favourite Marvel movies so far. It’s fun, exciting, and heartfelt in exactly the way I like Spiderman to be. And now I’m going to skip past all the enthusing I could do about its plot, dialogue, and characters, because there are actual reviewers for that. I want to talk about how this fun, breezy film reflects upon serious issues in America, issues that are all too familiar to someone living in Britain.
Who’s Who in Homecoming
There are three important sets of characters in Homecoming – school, villains, and The Man.
Peter Parker’s school is a youthful and diverse place. The students and staff represent the complex and varied society of a modern global city, without the story ever making an issue out of this. It’s a space that celebrates diversity and representation while recognising that everyone has their flaws and weaknesses. This is the America that liberals want to encourage.
The villains are working class men. They’re mostly white, though with a significant black character. A lot of them are getting on in years. They’ve been shit on by the establishment. Their overriding concern is to look after themselves and their families. This is the America that conservatives want to protect.
Then there’s The Man, as represented by Stark Enterprises and Damage Control. These are economically and politically powerful organisations run by people in suits. They cause problems for everyone else. They’re caught up in the big picture and aren’t good at seeing how that affects the people around them. They’re powerful, patronising, and not as smart as they could be.
You don’t need a degree in semiotics to see how this is symbolic of what’s going on at the moment. The sides of America represented by Spiderman’s school and his villains are in conflict politically. At its extremes, this is supporters of Trump versus supporters of Obama and Hilary. The irony being that they’re both voting for faces of The Man, the big traditional bodies that have let them all down.
I’m not saying that Spiderman Homecoming offers a deep exploration of these themes. I’m in two minds about whether it’s even consciously looking at them, and when I go back to watch it (which I will, many times) that’s one of the things I’ll be trying to judge. But I still think that it’s doing something important. It’s representing both of these groups in a light that is, if not always sympathetic, at least understable. It’s showing that The Man is a third factor in their lives, not the representative of either group. That shouldn’t be an unusual thing for someone to say, but it is. Hopefully by saying it at all, this film will help people to gain a little more insight into the society we live in.
Maybe it will even, as the film suggests, offer hope for reconciliation amid further divisions.
As Cap says, it just might take a little patience to get us there.
As the world looks more and more crazy, I’m reminded of why I value culture so much.
It’s the thing keeping me sane.
Part of that’s escapism. If you’re like me, you probably look at modern politics with fear and anxiety. Even if you’re not, there’s bound to be stuff in the news that upsets and angers you. Books, films, music, games – these things let us escape that stress for a while. They stop it from overwhelming us.
And then there are the corners of culture that help us face the awful. I love satirists like John Oliver and Trevor Noah. They take serious subjects and find the humour in them while retaining a serious message. Laughter makes the whole thing more palatable. It lets me watch for longer without fear that I’ll just break down in tears at what monsters we are.
Of course, there are dangers to this. Once you start laughing at the opposition, you risk slipping into hard-hearted ridicule that brings out the worst in us. By all means, make fun of the things Theresa May and Hilary Clinton stand for. But if you start making jokes about their appearance, you risk reinforcing the casual misogyny of judging women on their looks. And if you laugh at every single setback Donald Trump faces, you can easily reach the point of simply laughing at another human’s pain. That’s not a good look on anyone.
So yeah, culture keeps me sane. But it’s a powerful tool for reflecting on where we’re at and with great power comes great responsibility.
Spiderman taught me that. See, culture helping out all over again.
I’m starting to feel like politicians want my job. Judging by the current debate about whether or not Britain should stay in the European Union, they’re all into speculative fiction. Both sides have come out with apocalyptic predictions about our near future. If they’d been written by Bruce Sterling or Kim Stanley Robinson I might even take them seriously – those guys know how to make plausible predictions based on economics, sociology, and the hard sciences. Nigel Farage, not so much.
I have strong opinions on this issue, but they aren’t based on amateur sf predictions, they’re based on my ideals and what I think we should value as human beings. Watching politicians cry havoc and let slip the dogs of alarmism just makes me mad.
So as a professional speculative writer I beg you, don’t listen when politicians dabble in science fiction. Listen to their values, by all means. Pay attention to their CVs. Watch to see if their actions and their words match. But don’t let them predict the future for you – they never know what they’re talking about.
I love that the world is changing. I love the variety that brings and the novelty it creates within our culture, even as the dark fingers of uncertainty send tremors of fear through my body.
Unfortunately, fear of change is currently rearing its big, ugly head all over geek culture.
The most prominent and hideous example of this is the treatment of feminists in computer gaming. There are some great designers and critics out there critiquing the domination of gaming by white, straight, male gamers and characters, and the way this excludes others. This has triggered a huge backlash, in which people have been called the vilest names and even had their lives threatened for expressing their opinions on a medium they love.
Then there’s the fuss, for the second year in a row, around science fiction and fantasy’s Hugo awards. I think there are a lot of problems with the Hugos, but they’re certainly high profile within the core of sf+f. This year, a reactionary group have managed to dominate the nominations with a slate of conservative, white, male authors. It’s a shame, but it is at least getting people engaged with the awards, and may favour the pro-diversity arguments in the long run.
Outside the world of geek, anti-immigrant party UKIP have risen to prominence in this year’s British general election. It’s no great revelation to say that an anti-immigrant party is reactionary and playing on people’s fears.
I find all of this distressing, especially given the way that it has impinged upon what I normally consider a safe space, the welcoming a varied world of geek culture. And I find it hard to balance my own emotional reactions.
On the one hand, I understand that change is frightening, that many of the reactionaries respond this way because they feel threatened. I feel sorry for their hurt and for the way that they aren’t able to embrace all this wonderful variety. But in understanding them and trying not to become reactionary against the reactions, I risk undervaluing my own feelings on the subject. They’re attacking things I value, they create an unpleasant atmosphere, and it’s not unreasonable for me and others like me to feel hurt by that, even a little frightened at where this is going.
I remain hopeful. I’ve always been something of an opportunistic humanist, and the history of humanity, as well as that of the culture I love, to me shows an upward trend toward great diversity and understanding. But there are downward moments as well as upward ones, both becoming ever shorter and more frequent as humanity grows and change accelerates. For the sake of my sanity, I’ll lean into the hurt as well as the hope, use it to power my own work, and remember that this too will pass.
Whatever the outcome of the Hugos, the general election, and a series of nasty Twitter spats, the diverse and joyful things I love aren’t going away. The ranting of sad and angry reactionaries will never stop that.
They say that in space no-one can hear you scream. The truth is even more disturbing. In space, no-one can tell that you aren’t American.
“No, I’m the British representative,” I said in Embalgon for the third time. I wasn’t going to correct the minister for calling me ambassador – he didn’t need to know that I was a public relations officer, only sent because others had struggled with his language. “Here to discuss the new embassy.”
“Julian Atticus, is this ‘English’ your language?” The Embalgon interior minister’s gills flapped in agitation. Though his scales remained a sedate blue, I sensed that he was finding this as frustrating as I was.
“Absolutely,” I said. “We invented it.”
“Good.” The minister narrowed one pair of eyes, the Embalgon equivalent of a smile, and sat back in his chair. “Then you represent the Americans, and their debts.”
I leaned back too, enjoying the fine silk-like materials from which the Embalgon’s made their furniture, gazing out the window at the city below. It was a beautiful place, even the factories forced to match its undulating curves if they wanted a share of the lucrative local trade. A trade the British government hoped to profit from, by setting up an embassy to regulate British business here. Our business presence was nothing compared with the Americans, but the Embalgons gave embassies great influence over their natives’ businesses, and the tax potential alone made the venture worthwhile.
At least now I knew why negotiations had stalled – the bloody Americans and their government’s bloody debts again. Was this how it felt to be Canadian back on Earth, constantly associated with the ruins of their southern neighbour’s government?
I mustered my thoughts, and the Embalgon words to express them, but the concepts didn’t quite match. I didn’t hold up much hope for this conversation.
“On Earth, language groups are not the same as nations,” I said. “Americans and Britons share a language, but we are politically distinct.”
I could see that I was getting nowhere. It was like trying to explain the difference between sex and gender to some humans, the ideas so utterly connected in their minds that I might as well have used the same word. For an Embalgon, language, nation, culture, even economy were so utterly intertwined as to be inseparable. I might have been able to explain this to an academic, or even a teacher, but to an elected politician? No chance.
Being labelled as American was indignity enough. Now I was going to have to include their debts in the negotiations.
“So how much do the Americans owe from their previous embassy here?” I asked, realising as I said it that I couldn’t even bear to use ‘we’ or ‘us’. I could lie to the press a dozen times a day without flinching, but couldn’t bring myself to pretend to be a Yank. So much for my strength of character.
With one suckered hand, the minister held out a flat device the size of my palm. I read the figure on the screen. The sheer size of it choked my brain – nearly double what I was even authorised to discuss. This deal was not going to happen.
“Who’s currently responsible for American businesses trading here?” I asked, as casually as I could.
The minister snorted.
“Responsible,” he said. “If only someone would be responsible for them. No-one is keeping them in line. No-one is regulating their shipping. The Great Sea only knows where all the goods are going.”
“Then whoever takes over this debt is responsible for those businesses too? For regulation, oversight, and so on?”
A look of disappointment filled the minister’s face. He’d clearly hoped to keep this part from me, to fob off a perceived burden along with the debt.
Cultural confusion can so easily cut both ways.
“Fine,” he said. “We are willing to drop twenty percent of the debt if you will just take control of those factories with it.”
“Fifty percent,” I said.
We didn’t shake on it. Human skin feels repulsive to Embalgons, and theirs brings us out in a rash. Instead encryption codes were exchanged and attached to an electronic agreement. The deal was done.
I called our ambassador from the shuttle on the way out of atmosphere and told her the good news. In space, no-one can tell that you aren’t the Americans.
There was a crowd outside the cemetery gates. Tall men and women, warmly dressed against the cold snap. As Michael passed them he caught a glimpse of flattened faces beneath hoods, hats and scarves. They were Neanderthals, part of the community that had grown up in Longsight over the past decade. To social scientists it was a fascinating insight into the formation of communities. To Michael it was one more minority interest complicating his constituency.
“This way, minister.” Cowley, his slender and obsequious assistant, led him through the gates, snow crunching beneath their feet as they strode towards the cemetery manager’s office. Despite the cold and the intimidating presence of the crowd around the gates, relatives had been in to pay their respects, and flowers lay amid the snow on several of the graves.
“Mr Totman.” The woman who met him at the door wore a smart black suit, her hair tied back. “I’m Lydia Boyd, the manager here. I’m terribly sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you.” Michael never knew how to respond. What could you say? No words would ever bring his husband back.
“I’m afraid the heating is broken in my office,” Boyd said. “But the seats are more comfortable in reception anyway.”
She settled down into a padded grey chair, and Michael took the one opposite. Cowley lingered outside the door making phone calls – the business of government didn’t stop for personal tragedy.
“You said we needed to talk,” Michael said. “About Chris’s funeral.”
“Yes.” Boyd’s expression was sad, but her gaze didn’t waver from his. “I’m afraid that the genome tests following Christopher’s autopsy revealed a substantial proportion of Neanderthal ancestry.”
“That’s impossible,” he said. “Both his parents were human, and born long before the first cloned revivals.”
“I’m afraid it’s not that simple.” Boyd handed him a sheet of paper, showing the results from the test. “Nearly all of us have some DNA from Neanderthals and other archaic humans. So while these tests are successful in keeping Neanderthals out of human cemeteries, they also very occasionally exclude others too.”
“That’s absurd!” Michael rose to his feet. This was where Chris’s family was buried, where he’d wanted to be buried. The thought of not doing that stirred up all the pain of the past few weeks, and he found himself choking on his own words. “Can’t you change your rules?”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “If I had my way I would open up the gates and let those protesters win. Everybody would be buried here, homo sapiens or Neanderthal. You know that they bring flowers to the graves? We won’t even let them bury their families here, but they still make sure that the graves are tended.”
“Surely you can make an exception.” He felt desperate, nothing but her denial sinking in. “I have money. I can make a donation to the cemetery. Or to you, if you prefer.”
“Minister.” She rose and placed a gentle hand on his arm. “You should be careful. That almost sounded like a bribe. And I’m afraid that the law is clear, a law that you voted for. The Prime Minister said, ‘we do not force people to be buried in the same ground as pets, can we make them accept graves alongside anything other than our own species?’”
“Then there must be something wrong with the test. Chris was a human being!”
“Do you think she isn’t?” Boyd pointed out through the glass doors, past Cowley, to where an aging Neanderthal in a long coat was placing sunflowers on one of the graves.
“But the test is for being a true human.” Uncertainty and grief made Michael wobbly on his feet. He leaned against the door, forehead pressed to the cold glass.
“The test is for Neanderthal DNA,” Boyd said. “What you’re talking about is far harder to pin down.”
The Neanderthal woman looked directly at Michael. She didn’t wave or make that strange little frown others used to tell him how sorry they were. But her eyes communicated her understanding of his hurt more completely than anybody saying “I feel sorry for your loss.”
“Her husband died recently too,” Boyd said. “That’s not his grave, of course.”
A sense of conviction rose in Michael, one he hadn’t felt since his first election campaign. He stood up straight, turned and shook Boyd’s hand.
“Thank you for taking the time to talk,” he said. “I’ll contact the undertaker about Chris.”
He opened the door and strode out into the snow. Cowley, seeing his master spring into action, snapped his phone shut and scurried after him.
“Is the funeral arranged?” Cowley asked. “I have the invitations ready.”
“No.” Michael stopped in the cemetery gates, looking out at the sad, silent faces of the protesters. He felt like he might cry at any moment, like only the drive to act was holding him back. “Contact the media. We have other things to deal with.”
He joined the crowd, making eye contact with each quiet figure in turn, falling into the moment of shared sorrow. Tears ran down his cheeks, yet he felt a lightening of his burden, a sense of release.
“Then call the Prime Minister,” he said, turning to the shocked looking Cowley. “I don’t think he’ll want me in his government anymore.”
He pulled out his own phone, found a picture of Chris and showed it to the Neanderthal next to him.
“My husband,” he said.
The Neanderthal pulled a picture out of his pocket, a smiling Neanderthal woman in a flower print dress.
They stood together in grief.
This story was suggested by my friend Lynda, who thought I could take inspiration from a radio program about evolution and the fact that we now have full DNA sequences for at least two different hominid species besides ourselves.
Challenge accepted, and completed.
I already have a few ideas for future flash Friday stories based on other people’s comments, but if you have a suggestion then please leave a comment and I’ll add it to my ideas list. It’s always good to get more ideas.